How Did the First-Century Jews View the Wilderness? A Hostile Place? Or a Place of Hope?

John the Baptist’s ministry was located in the wilderness. I’ve often wondered how the Jews viewed the wilderness. I’ve heard preachers say that they feared the wilderness. It was a place, they said, of demons and wild animals.

Photo Credit: Israel Defense Forces via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Israel Defense Forces via Compfight cc

Is this so?

Here’s what R. T. France says in his excellent commentary on Mark:

“[The wilderness] was the theologically correct location.

For the wilderness was a place of hope, of new beginnings. It was in the wilderness that Yahweh had met with Israel and made them into his people when they came out of Egypt. That had been the honeymoon period, before the relationship became strained. ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to Yahweh, the first fruits of his harvest’ (Je. 2:2-3). In the wilderness Israel experienced privation and danger, and learned through this testing period to trust in the provision and protection of their God; this is the message of Moses’ great exhortation to Israel in the early chapters of Deuteronomy, summed up in Dt. 8 (and used as a model for Jesus’ own wilderness experience in the Q temptation narrative). So as the prophets looked back to the comparative purity of Israel’s wilderness beginnings, the hope grew that in the wilderness God’s people would again find their true destiny. ‘Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her….And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt’ (ho. 2:14-15; cf. Ezk. 20:35-38). The voice in the wilderness (Is. 40:3-5) which introduces Deutero-Isaiah’s great vision of restoration, is followed by the recurrent theme of a new Exodus, a new beginning in a wilderness transformed by the renewing power of Israel’s God (Is. 41:18-19; 43:19-21; 44:3-4, etc.).”

(R. T. France,  The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC), p. 56-7)

In a footnote on page 57, France responds to the alternative view that the wilderness was a “hostile place, the abode of evil spirits.” He says:

“It is, of course, in the wilderness that Jesus meets with Satan…but the text suggests that this was because that was where Jesus already was rather than because that was the place to find Satan. It was later Christian tradition, based no doubt on the synoptic temptation narratives, that developed this connection, as ascetics like St. Antony of Egypt went out into the desert to struggle with demons. Evidence of this connection in Jewish thought is not impressive, however.”

Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.